There’s a gravitational pull to Tracy Rector. At once stern and empathetic, she has the air of a modern Atlas, shouldering the weight of many worlds. With a glimmer of laughter in her eyes, she takes in the frantic hustle all around her, scanning and reading it, you, as though she sees a much bigger picture. She is a consummate creator, an opener of doors, a builder of platforms. A calm amid chaos.
It’s a cool morning at the end of a smoky, ominous summer in Seattle. Rector, a 46-year-old mixed-race Choctaw/Seminole filmmaker, curator, educator and arts advocate, is wrapped in a loose sweater. She’s just made her daily commute from Tacoma, where she’s lived since last November, to her office on Capitol Hill, nested in the Northwest Film Forum building. There are traces of fatigue in her eyes; she was up nearly all night writing a grant for an exhibit she’s co-curating. Called ‘yəhaw̓’—a Coast Salish word that connotes a communal calling forth, a ritual summoning—this uber-exhibit will span nine months and showcase hundreds of Indigenous artists at numerous venues starting this month. Every artist who submitted work will be exhibited; Rector and her team are carving out space for every last piece.
“I’m interested in collaborative projects where communities still have a voice,” Rector says, pausing to let a banshee howl of sirens and construction vehicles crescendo over 12th Avenue. We’re seated outside a juice bar next to the Film Forum, along a stretch of the neighborhood that’s transformed drastically in the years she’s lived and worked here. “The key is preserving space for creativity to happen. As an artist with an activist focus, it’s what I’m most interested in—preserving and maintaining those kinds of spaces. I think it’s too late in Seattle.”
And yet the work Rector’s done in Seattle over the past decade has been pivotal in shaping and preserving the city’s cultural identity. Her output is nothing short of staggering.
As cofounder of Longhouse Media, she’s hosted or produced myriad programs to empower filmmakers. For five years, Native Lens offered filmmaking instruction to youth living on reservations. For nine years, SuperFly Film Workshops brought together 50–70 youth from diverse cultures around the country to create work in and alongside Indigenous communities, producing films in a span of 48 hours that then screened at Seattle International Film Festival. Now entering its fifth year, 4th World Indigenous Media Lab provides industry master classes to a year-long cohort of emerging and mid-career Indigenous filmmakers. (Rector is adamant that projects evolve or shutter rather than grow unwieldy or ineffectual.)
In partnership with Northwest Film Forum, Rector spearheads the Indigenous Showcase series, now in its 11th year, which shows the best of new work by Native American and Indigenous filmmakers. She serves on the Seattle Arts Commission and for the past two years has been a curator of Seattle Theatre Group’s Re:definition Gallery, a space inside the Paramount Theatre that focuses on race and social justice.
Rector not only manifests platforms and connections for others, she makes powerful, beautiful films—mostly documentary, some experimental—that encourage change and a better future. To date, she has collaboratively produced or directed more than 400 short films and five feature documentaries, including 2018’s Dawnland, about government removal of Indigenous children from their families, and 2008’s March Point, an environmental documentary that was celebrated by UNESCO as exemplary of Indigenous grassroots mobilization in response to climate change. Her films have screened at Toronto International Film Festival and Cannes Film Festival and been nationally broadcast on the PBS series Independent Lens.
“It’s baffling to understand how to sustain any of this, to be honest,” she says. “But when I see opportunity open it’s hard not to say yes, because when I do it opens a lot of doors for other people. That’s what drives me.”
‘yəhaw̓‘ may be Rector’s most ambitious project to date. Developed with co-curators Satpreet Kahlon and Asia Tail, the exhibit aims to present a collective portrait of contemporary Native America through the lens of Indigenous artists working in both contemporary and traditional materials.
“We’re trying to decolonize a kind of curation, bring a lot of community involvement to the experience so it works for Native people,” she says. “It’s a lot of heavy labor, but it’s vital to me to showcase the breadth of Native communities; there are many who make amazing things but don’t see themselves as artists.”
King Street Station will serve as the exhibit’s central venue, showing a piece by every one of the artists participating inyəhaw̓ and opening in January. The exhibit extends to 20 partner locations that will host solo shows, groups shows and experimental installations, including Hedreen Gallery at Seattle University, Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute, Café Pettirosso, Vermillion, Feast and Alma Mater in Tacoma, as well as Suquamish Museum, Seattle Art Museum and the Seattle Public Library, where the first installment opens on Oct. 6. Called This Is Our Home, Where We Belong, it features original artwork by five Coast Salish women exploring environmental justice, identity and place.
“Tracy has tapped into an Indigenous way of educating that I think is still widely underappreciated,” says Asia Tail, an artist, arts administrator and citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma as well as a curator. Tail was a teenager when she first met Rector in a Native Lens workshop. “She knows that the best way to reach people is by showing them, and she uses storytelling to bring home messages to her audience’s hearts that they may not be ready to hear with their conscious minds yet. She makes the political personal and relatable.”
Rector’s commitment to rethinking the way art is curated and presented reflects her own path to art, which was anything but straightforward.
She was born in Colorado Springs in 1972; her mother, a white Jewish woman, was just 18 years old. Her father was Choctaw, Seminole, Black and Irish. In that era, mixed-race couples weren’t smiled upon; such unions were still illegal in many states. If that wasn’t enough to raise eyebrows, Rector was born with purple splotches on her skin.
“Since I was born with purple spots, from being mixed-race, the doctors and nurses thought that my parents were beating me in utero,” she says. “People couldn’t even conceive that my mom was my mom. It’s an indication of how unusual a mixed-race child was at the time.”
When Rector was three her father moved the family to Seattle for work. What unfolded seemed a pretty typical childhood on the surface, but the household was dysfunctional, and Rector was often left to fend for herself.
“The TV was my babysitter,” she says, lighting up. “I watched a ton of it, especially black-and-white movies. Twilight Zone. Star Trek. Wonder Woman. Kung Fu. I never felt reflected back though, and I always joke that since there weren’t a lot of people of color on TV at the time, some of the only representations of mixed-race people were Spock or Wonder Woman or the Shaolin monk Caine.”
Alone under the flicker of the screen, with her big pop-bottle glasses and braids, playing with Barbies and electric cars zipping along plastic tracks, Rector immersed herself in the imaginary realm. It was an education in escape.
“I began to notice as I got a little older, I’d meet people and my mind would immediately begin creating stories, fantasizing their backstory,” she recalls. “I think those were maybe the beginnings of storytelling.”
As a result of the dysfunction at home, Rector learned to pick up on subtleties and intuit what was going on under the surface, whether at home or in social settings. It provided her some marketable skills.
In her 20s, she worked as an advocate in a domestic violence shelter, a confidential safe house where women and children sought refuge from dangerous situations. “I could listen and empathize. I wanted to make a difference,” Rector says. “But that wasn’t enough. It was incredibly traumatic and emotionally draining work.”
After a few particularly traumatic months at the shelter, a number of the women were murdered at the hands of their abusers. Some of the batterers discovered the shelter. Rector saw another woman with alcohol poisoning taken to the hospital, where she did not survive. At the age of 29, Rector had a nervous breakdown and had to be hospitalized. “It was too much for me as a young woman who didn’t entirely know how to process the daily stress and suffering.”
While recovering, she participated in Native American healing ceremonies performed by the spiritual community she’d become a part of in Seattle. Those ceremonies helped her realize that she couldn’t continue that line of work.
“In the Native American Church, an important aspect of the spirit medicine and faith is peyote,” Rector says. “At that time it opened up for me the ability to see more clearly that I needed to be on a different path. But it reconfirmed for me, too, the power of storytelling, as well as my intimate connection to the natural world.”
Rector went on to make a living as a tarot card reader. “It was a natural extension of my childhood,” she says, “recognizing patterns to create stories, being a good observer and listener, being able to reflect back to an inquiring person the things they want to hear, things they already intuitively know.”
She also threw herself into work at Dandelion Botanical Company, a holistic medicine and herb apothecary in Fremont (now located in Ballard), which motivated her to pursue a formalized education in plant-based medicine at Evergreen State College. There, she began dabbling in the medium that had fueled her young imagination: film.
She later volunteered at 911 Media Arts, a now-defunct nonprofit that provided training, equipment and funding to emerging filmmakers, while studying for a graduate degree in Native American education at Muckleshoot Tribal College through Antioch University. In 2005, for her graduating project at Muckleshoot, Rector and Annie Silverstein cofounded Longhouse Media, a nonprofit dedicated to documenting the contemporary lives of Native people around Puget Sound.
With one foot firmly planted in the world of fantasy and the other in reality, Rector’s style of cinematic storytelling marries art and fact, painting moving pictures with her camera, landscapes and portraits that rival the works of Albert Bierstadt, Ansel Adams and Alfred Stieglitz but supplant the clouded visions of such colonizers.
Earlier this year four of Rector’s videos were included in the Seattle Art Museum’s Double Exposure, an exhibit drawing on work by contemporary Native artists to riff on and subvert the stereotypical tintype documentation produced by colonizers in the 19th century. Amid the exhibit’s photographs, drawings and historical portraits, Rector’s images were projected monumentally large through the gallery. In Water Is Life—a segment of the multi-part documentary Clearwater: People of the Salish Sea—the tips of towering firs needle upward, a jagged crenellation of foliage against a pale sky. At the foot of the mountains, a canoe cuts across the crinkled surface of a gunmetal gray sea. The sea threads through each frame of the film, giving life, an entity as permeable as it is powerful.
Rector calls these films “love poems to the environment.” Eagle Bone (Ch’aak’ S’aagi), Rector’s first VR film and perhaps the first VR film to be produced by a Native American artist, follows a young man through the streets of Seattle, through lush fields of grass dancing with blossoms, to beaches dissolving into the Salish Sea, accompanied by a freestyle spoken word narrative that cascades and meanders, a multidimensional, peripatetic piece of poetry.
“Film-watching is no longer just passive,” Rector says. “Film provides an opportunity for people to come together to talk, to experience new realities. I feel gathering in person, to be in community, for story and dialogue is an act of rebellion. I also realize more can be done with film, but to do that we need to learn how to move people together through space emotionally, using all their senses.”
Rector’s sense of humanity is evident whether her films are projected in a museum or streaming online, as they were when she was uploading daily missives from Standing Rock during the Dakota Access pipeline protests of 2016. With cocreator Steve Hyde, she filmed on site at a grueling pace, putting out 40 short videos in one month. Though created at breakneck speed, the mini-docs sparkle with careful elegance, depicting portraits of Indigenous veterans braced against the Dakota cold and framed by a crystalline, frozen backdrop.
Such vignettes of Native perspectives unfold in brief snapshots and coalesce to form a sweeping realignment of historical narrative from a non-colonizing point of view—like all of Rector’s multifaceted work.
“This work—all of it—is not about me, and I’m very conscious about that,” Rector says. “Not that I was always this way, but now it’s not at all ego-driven. This act of creation is best in collaboration and when it serves a bigger purpose. My interest begins and ends with centering indigeneity and simply getting the stories out in a good way, to bring about social justice through this medium.”
Rector’s currently planning her second VR film, which will take place in a 1930s speakeasy with a Native American jazz singer inspired in part by Mildred Bailey—something like a mix of Jessica Rabbit, Billie Holiday and Josephine Baker—and the fantastical quality of the musical drama Idlewild, set during the Depression. “It’s an opportunity to jump into my ultimate black-and-white fantasy: creating a period piece full of that luscious 1930s aesthetic, jazz music, the pin curls and dandies, creating an immersive space filled by all these beautiful brown faces, enticing everyone to fall in love with her. I can’t wait.”
Rector’s ability to seduce through stories is the stuff of hallowed auteurs. But it’s her ability to vanish behind the story that makes her work so enthralling. Fantasy doesn’t always have to be an escape; rather a tool to reframe and change the world.